Fred Cook (standing with microphone), Director of USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, welcomes a large audience to USC Annenberg's Wallis Annenberg Hall on February 16, 2017 for a program entitled "Over Sixty, Underestimated: A Healthy Look at the Silver Screen. The program was presented by the Center for Public Relations and Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative.
USC Annenberg / Amy Tierney

Health and entertainment experts discuss Hollywood's on-screen portrayal of aging

On Feb. 16, 2017, USC Annenberg's Center for Public Relations and Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI), along with Humana, hosted "Over Sixty, Underestimated: A Healthy Look at the Silver Screen," a panel discussion on the portrayal of aging in Hollywood films.

The event coincided with the release of MDSCI's latest report, which analyzed 1,256 speaking or named characters in 25 Best Picture-nominated films from 2014, 2015 and 2016 to assess the portrayal of characters aged 60 and over.

The discussion was moderated by John Horn, host of KPCC's The Frame, and the panelists included Caroline Cicero, ‎instructional assistant professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology; Stacy Smith, associate professor of communication and director of MDSCI at USC Annenberg; Dr. Yolangel "Yogi" Hernandez Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer of care delivery at Humana; Gary Lucchesi, film producer and president of The Producers Guild of America; and actress Frances Fisher. 

Horn began by suggesting that this year's Academy Awards may be summarized with the hashtag #OscarsSoYoung, in keeping with the findings from the study, and in contrast with the previous year's ceremony that was mired in criticism over the nominees' racial homogeneity. 

Smith and her team were not surprised by the results of the study, which revealed that depictions of characters over the age of 60 accounted for 11 to 12 percent of all speaking roles in the studied films.

"If you look at leading roles there are only two actors that were 60 and above and they were both played by the same white man—Michael Keaton. That really summarizes the problem," Smith said. "[Seniors] are demeaned, and derogatory comments are asserted by the character or by others. That seems to be the status quo on how content creators and storytellers think about aging in cinematic content." 

When asked why this study is important, Cicero asserted that ageism should not be regarded as an "acceptable" form of discrimination. 

"If we portray older people in ways that make them look bad, or make them feel like they need to act younger than they are, we're not validating people just on the basic core of who they are," she said. "We need more positive images of healthy [older] people and healthy interpersonal relationships on screen."

"The elder community is the only community in which humiliation and jokes can be made, and nobody is standing up and saying that's wrong," Fisher added. "You can't talk to people like that."

Horn asked Hernandez Suarez how entertainment intersects with healthcare, and why Humana is motivated to look into this area.

"We need to acknowledge that health increasingly doesn't really happen in the doctor's office—most of it happens in the community and in society," Hernandez Suarez said. "So how do we get to film? Popular culture is influential in the United States—we think it can play a role in helping all of us see ourselves in a positive light in the future."

Speaking on the disparity between genders, Smith noted that only nine percent of the senior characters in 2016 films were female. "That's really an indictment about what's valued and not valued on screen," she said.

Horn then noted that while it's common for older male characters to be in a relationship with a much younger female, the opposite is very rarely the case. "Is there a kind of role that older men get to play but that role is off limits to women?" he asked.

"When 75 percent-plus of the older characters are men, that's the dynamic that you're going to see on screen," Smith said. "When 11 percent of all writers are women, right around 90 percent are men writing these stories. The producers that are greenlighting, about 80 percent of them are men, and about 95 percent of directors are men."

Smith also added that despite the general hypersexualization of women on screen, those over 40 are rarely sexualized. "Forty is the sell-by date for women on screen in film," she said. "You see a lack of value of women's bodies aging over time."

As a veteran film producer with decades of experience working with actors from various age groups, Lucchesi offered an insider's perspective of the issue.

"If you're an agent, [older actors] are doing great," he said. He cited the desirability of 66 year-old Kathy Baker and the success of several older actors in recent films and in television. "Michael Douglas is getting close to $5 million for 'Ant-Man.' Anthony Hopkins, between 'Westworld' and 'Thor,' made close to $10 million last year."

Television is doing much better when it comes to depicting a more diverse populations, including seniors, Lucchesi said. 

"Television is mostly commercial based, and you can validate and understand a story about a family that has older people in it, because you can advertise products to that show. Film on the other hand, you finance the movie in one spot. The studios are primarily making content for the entire world that is not character driven. When you have that as reality, you're gonna face number that Stacy encountered," he said.

Fisher stressed how a movie can be a powerful tool in educating viewers, especially young ones, about real life. 

"The impression of movies really shaped me," she said. "I want to go to a movie that's going to uplift me or teach me something," she said. "It's great to see the kids [on screen], but I want to see the elders, who have the wisdom, who have lived an entire life."

The discussion then turned to possible solutions for the film industry that would allow them to tell stories about a more diverse group of people and make stories by and for underrepresented group. 

"One thing is getting the data out here, so people are aware that this is part of the conversation," Smith said. "Two processes are at work when we see stereotypes emerging or coming to the foreground in this conversation. First, the writers need to be sensitive to their own mental models of what older characters look like, how they imagine them. Second, casting directors need to think more critically about the lines that they're given, and make decisions and bring them back to the director and the producers attention."

Lucchesi agreed that the solution could begin with the source material. "The kind of scripts being developed right now in Hollywood by writers are very generic," he said. "Better writers are now working in television and that's where there's better variety. The challenges I'm facing as a primarily film producer, is the paucity of quality material."

Cicero suggested a more general solution. "If we don't value grey hair, or even turning 30, how can we value 50 or 60 more years that we're going to live?" she said. "If we don't value those people, how can we expect all of us in the country to value ourselves as well? It really has to do with dignity and valuing a person, letting them be accepted. We should embrace our age instead of trying to hide it."

"Our goal is to elevate this dialogue to a national level," Hernandez Suarez said. "We think it's going to impact the health of our patients, that's why we are absolutely committed to continuing this work. I see everybody in this room as an ambassador for this message. We are all influential in our own circles. The future is in this group."